Fee Petition Doesn’t Extend Time to Appeal Trial Verdict In Commercial Lease Spat

In Naperville South Commons, LLC v. Nguyen, 2013 IL App (3d) 120382-U, a Will County shopping center landlord filed its notice of appeal too late and so a money judgment for the tenant stands.

The case involves a multi-year shopping center lease for tenant’s operation of nail salon. Several months into the lease’s fourth year, the landlord unilaterally increased the tenant’s rent by over $1,200 per month.  Tenant balked and landlord filed joint action for rent and possession.

At trial, the court entered judgment for the tenant on landlord’s rent claim because the landlord failed to prove that the tenant owed rents or other monies at the time landlord served its 5-day notice.  The court also awarded the tenant some $54,000 in attorneys’ fees based on fee-shifting language in the lease.  Landlord appealed.

The appeals court held it lacked jurisdiction over landlord’s appeal and affirmed trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees.

The trial court entered judgment in November 2011 and the landlord didn’t file its appeal until nearly six months later in May 2012 – the day after the court ruled on tenant’s attorneys’ fee petition (which the tenant filed within 30 days of the trial court judgment). 

In Illinois, a notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days of a final judgment or within 30 days of the order which disposes of the “last pending postjudgment motion.”  Ill. Sup.Ct. R. 303.  Here, contrary to landlord’s position, the tenant’s attorneys’ fee petition was not a postjudgment motion since it didn’t directly challenge any of the trial court’s findings but was instead “collateral to” the trial court’s judgment.  ¶ 15.

The Court held that since tenant’s fee petition was not a post-judgment motion, the landlord did not have additional time – beyond the 30 days – to file its notice of appeal.  Because the landlord didn’t file its notice of appeal within 30 days of the underlying judgment, the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the landlord’s appeal.

The Third District did accept landlord’s appeal of the trial court’s fee award for the prevailing tenant.  The Court first held that the tenant was in fact the prevailing party.  The landlord argued that since it obtained possession of the premises, it won the case, since the primary purpose of the case was to dispossess the tenant.

In Illinois, “a party can be considered a prevailing party for the purposes of awarding fees when he is successful on any significant issue in the action and achieves some benefit in bringing suit, receives a judgment in his favor, or obtains some affirmative recovery.” ¶ 17.

The Court held that the landlord didn’t prevail on the possession issue since the tenant voluntarily left the premises: there was no adjudication of possession in landlord’s favor.  ¶ 18.

On the rent issue, the tenant clearly won since the trial court ruled that the tenant owed nothing based on landlord failing to carry its burden of proof that the tenant owed monies at the time landlord served its 5-day notice.

The Court affirmed the fee award to the tenant, noting that the tenant properly supported its fee petition with competent evidence that quantified its fees in defending the landlord’s eviction suit. ¶ 20.

Take-aways:

– When in doubt, file a Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the trial date order, regardless of what motions are filed by other parties after the judgment.  If the notice turns out to be premature, it will take effect automatically when the post – judgment motion is disposed of.

– A fee petition filed by a prevailing party is not a Rule 303 post-judgment motion that extends the 30-day period to file a notice of appeal;

– to be considered a prevailing party for purposes of an attorneys’ fees petition, the party must obtain an on-the-merits adjudication in its favor on a particular issue.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.

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